The sermon I never preached is the sermon I desperately needed because of the reason I did not preach it. Let me explain. Elaine and I were in England recently where I’d been invited to speak at a church/denomination anniversary celebration. We first spent a week in the town where we once lived re-connecting with old friends, and helping the church leadership process some very important decisions. By the end of the week we made our way toward the Leicestershire area for the celebration where I was scheduled to speak three times. Saturday afternoon’s events involved games, light snacks and topped off with a dinner spread of some of the best pork loins I’ve eaten in a long time. When late afternoon rolled into evening, the folks filled the small auditorium for the celebration to commence. Worship songs and reflections of the past set the stage for my first message on the faithfulness of God. It all went well; the mood that filled that small room reassured me that people were encouraged and looking forward to continuing the celebration the next day.
And they did, but without me.
That night I became violently ill. I assumed the migraine and rattled stomach would subside by morning, aided by a good sleep, but I was wrong. When I awoke, I felt worse. It turned out, because of my illness, that I could not fulfill my responsibility of speaking, nor attend, the rest of the event.
And so, the sermon I’d prepared for that morning, on the sovereignty and goodness of God remained unopened and un-preached. Yet, because of my disappointment and discouragement over having to bow out, it became the message I desperately needed. Rather than preaching to others that God is in control of everything, even when we’re hit by unexpected events, the Holy Spirit preached the sermon to my vulnerable and weakened heart, a heart that beat rhythmically between sheer embarrassment and deep discouragement.
I am still discouraged by what happened. The team there put a lot of time and resources into planning our time with them. I’m embarrassed by it, and slightly angry. Many back home prayed for us to be used effectively. I reminded God of that through the groans on the first evening of my illness, assuming he was more than eager to respond by allowing me to feel better the next morning. I was also frustrated that I’d spent over twenty hours preparing these messages, and now they’d be wasted. Incidentally, this is the first time in 30 years of ministry that I could not fulfill a speaking engagement due to illness.
If you know me well, you know I’m not one to look for silver linings to give life’s dark cloud trials a more appealing background, but I’m forced this time to realize certain things about myself and the way God works with me, and us. The whole experience reinforced and cemented several things I knew to be true, but I guess I needed to go through this to really believe it. I keep reminding God that I could have discovered the lesson just as well by reading a good book about it.
First, I realized how God often uses us in the most unexpected ways. Elaine told me how that Sunday morning the pastor preached a great message, building on what I’d shared the night before. It was a powerful message, she explained, and exactly what God used to remind the folks how faithful and good he is. God did just fine without me, and even used what I was going through as part of his message. We prefer he uses healthy servants, but his way, as seen so often in the Bible, is by way of our struggles, sometimes even at our expense. God is a master at taking the unexpected and the disappointing and chiseling his best work through them.
I also discovered from this that there are no guarantees that faith will deliver desired results. Sure, I prayed; many others were praying, and I prepared well, assuming that what I brought to the table would result in good spiritual outcomes. I anticipated reporting back to those who prayed for me of the amazing ways God worked. Faith, however, contrary to what many teach today, is not the primer that assures certain results. Instead, faith is what empowers us to keep trusting when none of it goes our way, or what we had assumed was God’s way. Ronald Dunn, in his book, When Heaven is Silent, puts it like this. “Faith is not necessarily the power to make things the way we want them to be; it is the courage to face things as they are.” Every disappointment reminds me that God owes me nothing, and every disappointment gives me another opportunity to keep leaning on him with only one guarantee; I can trust him.
I look back over this experience in awe. God does what he does the way he wants, not the way I want. He owes me no explanation for what happened. And I love him more for it.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. Isa. 55:8
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use? Romans 9:20-21